29 August 2013


CHIAVARI, Italy – The morning market in the piazza was very crowded yesterday. There are still a lot of tourists in town, and you could hear them oooing and ahhhing as they walked past the fruits and vegetables on display. There were two British women who made me laugh. They actually had a 10 minute conversation about the size (big) and amazing color of the red and yellow peppers. In the meantime the Chiavaresi mamas were buying them up, along with tomatoes and eggplants and I have a sneaky suspicion stuffed vegetables were  on the dinner menu last night.
 Chiavari's Morning Market

The most common Genovese filling for stuffed vegetables is made of bread (the soft white center) soaked in milk, bread crumbs, parmigiano cheese, marjoram and eggs to bind it all together. The flavoring agent depends on what vegetable is being stuffed. For eggplant, they add chopped porcini mushrooms plus a little garlic and oregano; for stuffed zucchini and onions, the mushrooms are omitted and they throw in a pinch of nutmeg. Chopped parsley is added to stuffed tomatoes and the mushrooms are back for stuffed artichokes. The artichokes recipe also calls for the chopped stalks of the artichokes, chopped leeks, oregano and nutmeg. 

I wouldn’t dare put oregano on artichokes – no matter how I cook them - for fear my Grandmother, who was from a town near Rome, will come back to haunt me. The Romans have a special herb for artichokes called mintuccia. It’s a type of mint that grows wild throughout the Roman countryside. I have a mintuccia plant growing in a container on my windowsill that I hope keeps my Grandmother happy so I can keep dreaming sweet dreams. But I digress. Back to stuffed veggies.
 Tasty Stuffed Peppers
In other parts of Italy they stuff vegetables with rice and ground beef, sometimes they add pine nuts or even raisins if it’s a couscous and ground lamb filling. That is the beauty of stuffed vegetables, you can fill them with almost anything, and they never disappoint you. 

You can stuff almost any vegetable, even escarole and lettuce, which are both very popular dishes here in Liguria. But that seems to me to be a lot of work because you have to tie each bundle together with string to keep the filling from falling out when you cook them. No doubt they are delicious but there are so many other vegetables that are just begging to be filled, like tomatoes for example, why bother.

Here’s an easy recipe for baked stuffed tomatoes from the Corriere della Sera, Milan’s daily newspaper. 

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes
Serves 4
4 large tomatoes
80 grams of ground beef (more or less 3 ounces)
60 grams of long grain rice
60 grams of fresh (or frozen) peas
2 small zucchini
1 carrot
1 white onion
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash the tomatoes and cut off the tops (like in the photo). You can also cut a very little bit off the bottom so they stand up better. Scoop out the inside of the tomatoes, chop it into pieces no larger than the peas, and set it aside.  Chop the onion, the carrot and the zucchini also into pieces no larger than the peas. 

Put a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add the chopped onion, carrot and zucchini, the ground beef, the rice, a cup of water and let it cook together for about 10 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. 

Fill the scooped out tomatoes with the rice and ground beef filling, and cover them with the tomato tops.  Drizzle a little olive oil over the top of them and then place a small amount of extra virgin olive oil in a casserole pan and bake in a preheated oven (160ᴼ C/325ᴼF) for 40 minutes. 

The recipes calls for making a sauce out of the chopped tomatoes and serving the stuffed tomato on top of it, just as you see in the photo, but to tell you the truth you could just as easily add the chopped tomatoes to the rice and meat mix and reduce the amount of water.

You can use this filling for any vegetable you want to stuff. You can substitute the rice with couscous or the soft center of Italian bread, or tiny pasta, or not use any of them and use the vegetable centers you scooped out to make room for the filling, by chopping them and mixing them with ground beef, lamb or pork, or skip the meat altogether. You can also leave out the peas and carrots, but you do need onions.

Hopefully this makes sense and you are not thoroughly confused at this point. As for me, all this talk about food is making me hungry, so I think I’ll  head for the kitchen and rustle me up some grub.  Buon Appetito.

25 August 2013

LIFE: Re-Entry Blues Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – FAWCO, the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas, is a worldwide organization which provides an environment for Americans, and other English speaking women, living abroad to meet. The alumni division is called FAUSA and it helps FAWCO members re-adjust to life in the USA after living out of the country for a while.

 Some expats live in Pieve, in the heart of Umbria,

One of FAUSA’s missions is to help bridge the re-entry gap back into the American way of life by maintaining connections with other returned FAWCO members who have shared an expatriate life. Going home is not as easy as you may think.

What is true is that after surviving an out-of-USA experience you see the world through different eyes, and as Pam Perraud, FAWCO’s NGO Director and UN representative writes, “repatriation shock is real and often more painful than ‘culture shock’ was in moving to a foreign country. It has been defined as the shock in realizing that nothing at home is the same as before.”
 Others live in Rome,
“You may find that your newfound skills don’t carry much weight,” wrote one expat who lived in England for several years. “Friends give you a blow by blow of five years of marital discord and vacations to the Jersey shore, but don’t seem to be able to sustain more than a few minutes interest in where you have been. Things have changed while you were gone and you begin to wonder if you are an old timer or a newcomer. I wanted to take out an ad in the American Women’s Club Newsletter warning everyone to STAY WHERE THEY ARE,” she went on to say.

 One or two, or most likely more, live in Florence,
Another article, written by a woman who lived in Germany for two and a half years, pointed out that for many of us, when we think about going home we think:

- Finally I will really understand what’s going on.
- I can’t wait to do business where people are efficient and courteous.
- Everything works better in the USA.
- People will be interested in hearing what I’ve been through – both good and bad.
- If I could adjust to life and work overseas, surely I’ll be able to handle this so-called repatriation adjustment.

“Sometimes,” she writes, “these things are true, but sometimes they are not.”
 While Ravello has attracted its share too,
For better or worse we change. No matter what the quality of the overseas experience has been, we are affected by it. We return a different person than when we left.

An article written by expat Helen Bachman cites several cases in which people, after having returned to America, moved back overseas. One woman, who had lived in Paris, was quoted as saying: “I felt the shock of my life. I couldn’t fit in or find a niche for myself, and the American lifestyle I thought I missed so much didn’t seem to suit me anymore.”

And more than few call Pisa home,
Once you have returned to the States a move back overseas is sometimes hard to explain to family and friends. Often even the expat doesn’t realize that what they may consider a return for an undefined period of time may end up being a lifetime.
But what is gained by living in another country goes far beyond the telling of tales of moonlight trips down the Grand Canal and espressos sipped in sidewalk cafes. Just being challenged on a daily basis, solving problems and dealing with issues you could never have imagined existed, strengthens you. Even if you crawl home and collapse in a heap, the next time out you are stronger and wiser.

The confidence you acquire in learning another language, to shop in kilos instead of pounds, in overcoming cultural barriers and just getting from point A to point B without getting lost is something that is yours forever.

So why is it so hard for some to go back to the US? I think it’s the very things we all complain about that we miss the most: the unexpected – the satisfaction of finally resolving and overcoming yet another bureaucratic folderol, the sense of accomplishment that comes from making it through another day.

But be it north or south or on an island like Palermo, you'll find us everywhere
In other words home is predicable, safe and do I dare say it - boring. I can hear expats here in Italy hooting – oh, for a safe, predicable, boring day. But even they have to admit no matter what the quality of their overseas experience is, they are affected by it.

I know that when I moved to Italy I had no idea how long I would be here. The plan was to stay until I didn’t want to be here anymore. Has that happened? Am I tired of living abroad? Well no, not yet, but you see I’ve only been here 20 plus years. And truthfully there are still some days when I feel as though I’m just getting the hang of it. But who knows, things can change, especially here in Italy. So let me get back to you in… 2025?

22 August 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Zuccotto Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy – I’ve been obsessed this entire week with the idea of making a zuccotto. I’m thinking about having a dinner party in the not too distant future and I thought zuccotto might be a good dessert to serve since I can make it ahead of time and freeze it. But when I started looking for a recipe, things got complicated.
 Pasticceria Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano, Genova
It seems there are as many variations of zuccotto as there are stars in the sky. Every town in Italy seems to have its own version. There’s the Tuscan zuccotto, the Sienese zuccotto, the Florentine zuccotto, the Neapolitan zuccotto, the chocolate zuccutto, the cherry, the ricotta, the ice cream, the whipped cream, the zuccotto triffle and even baby zuccotto. There were so many recipes from so many sources I was beginning to think I was the only person in the world who had never tackled this Italian specialty.

In the Italian cookbook world a zuccotto is a dome shaped dessert made with sponge cake soaked in liqueur and filled with custard or whipped cream and chocolate.  In the real world the cake part can be either cut up sponge cake or ladyfingers that have been brushed or dipped in a variety of liqueurs or flavorings. The cake is used to line a bowl or mold which is then filled with…. and this is where you have your choice of ingredients. Then the whole business is put into the freezer for at least 3 hours, unmolded upside down on a plate and decorated – or not.
 Zuccotto with Almonds
The recipe made sense, even without quantities, and I was happy until I came across  recipes for Sicilian Cassata that sounded very much like the recipes for zuccotto. Then I was confused.

From the recipes I found it seems cassata and zuccotto are very similar in construction and ingredients, maybe brothers from different mothers? But as much as they are similar, there are also major differences between them. First of all, a cassata isn't dome shaped, which zuccotto is, and secondly, a cassata is covered with marzipan and heavily lah dee dah decorated, which zuccotto is not.  
 Cassata is Much More Lah Dee Dah, Don't You Think?
The zuccotto got it's name from the word zucca, which means pumpkin in Italian, probably because it looks a little like a pumpkin. But zucca is much more than just pumpkin. For example, you might call someone a zuccone or pumpkin head if you though they were not particularly bright. But in the case of this cake, the name probably comes from its resemblance to the domed, metal helmets 15th century Italian soldiers wore to protect their heads (zuccas) when they went into battle. Or the name may have come from the skull cap priests wear to cover their zuccas. Both sound reasonable to me, and definitely very Italian.

But moving past the origin of the name, here is the zuccotto recipe I chose. It’s a compilation of many recipes I found on the internet.


Dome: Line a bowl (approx. 9-inches wide by 4-1/2 -inches deep) with plastic wrap. Allow several inches of the wrap to hang over the sides of the bowl to facilitate unmolding the cake.

Lightly brush each of the ladyfingers with liqueur (I used rum because I had some in the house) as you add them to the bowl, place them sugared side outwards. Fill the bottom and any gaps with liqueur-soaked trimmings so that the lining is completely solid. The tops of the ladyfingers should be even with the rim of the bowl. Chill for 30 minutes.

Filling: I used whipped cream for the filling, it seemed the easiest choice. I whipped one pint of cream with some powdered sugar and vanilla and divided it into two bowls. In one bowl I added candied citron and bits of shaved chocolate. In the second bowl of whipped cream I added cocoa powder (bitter) and chopped pistachios. It looked really disgusting.

I put the whipped cream with citron and chocolate bits in the ladyfinger lined bowl first, then I put the chocolate whipped cream on top of it. I closed the plastic wrap around the entire cake, put it in the freezer and crossed my fingers.
Zuccotto on its Way to Lah Dee Dah
Three hours later I took it out of the freezer and unmolded it on a serving dish. The minute I did I knew I was in trouble. The cake part, because it had been soaked in rum, was still mushy. It makes sense: alcohol does not freeze. I let the cake sit out for about half an hour, which technically would have made it a semi-freddo if I had added marscapone, and then, because I was dying of curiosity, I cut a wedge and put it on a plate.

It looked okay but the first bite of the cookie cover confirmed my worst fear. The taste of alcohol was overpowering. I should have brushed the ladyfingers with rum, not soaked them. Then I tasted the filling. That actually tasted better than I expected and when I put the two together, the rummy cake and the filling, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but….it wasn’t really really bad.

  Another Variation on the Theme
I don’t know if I’ll make it again, but if I do I think I’ll try the sponge cake instead of the ladyfingers, and most certainly I will use a lot less rum. If any of you have ever made zuccotto, your suggestions to better zuccotto making would be greatly appreciated.